'Maters!!! It's that time - picking the right plants for the season

I love tomatoes. I love ketchup, salsa, tomato sauce, tomato sandwiches, if it's tomato based I probably love it.

One of our favorite parts of summer are the abundance of tomatoes. So much so that it's hard to eat them any other time of year. A fresh tomato compared to an off-season one, one that might have been picked green and packed and transported for days and weeks, is just no comparable. They might as well be another vegetable altogether in my opinion.

The variety of tomatoes make this one of the most versitile vegetables as well (or fruit, whatever you want to think it is...I'm staying out of the debate). The sizes, shapes, colors and flavors range immensely though the typical fare at the grocery store might have you thinking differently.

When choosing tomatoes to grow there are a few things we keep in mind. What will we be using them for? Where will they be growing (in the garden, landscape, patio pot, etc) and what type of space will they need? One thing you don't have to choose based on - the sun. They all want a lot of sun. The more the better. So looking for, or choosing, options that don't require sun just isn't realistic!

We put in around 20 or so plants each year. We like big ones for slicing and serving fresh with a dash of sale or on a sandwich (white bread, Duke's mayonnaise, salt & pepper). We grow a few cherry tomato plants each year, and usually plant them at the entrance to the garden for quick access, for snacking on while out in the garden. We grow paste tomato plants and roma tomatoes for sauces. We also grow quite a few just for the fun colors they come in - they are striking on a plate or in a salad or just in a bowl on the counter top!

We usually plant them in waves as well. A few early so they'll fruit sooner in the season, more a month or so later, and then continuously until early June. This keeps large volumes of fresh ones available from early spring, through the summer, and until the first frost - sometimes as late as the first week or two of November. At the end of the season, just before the first frost, will pull off all the green ones that won't ripen and fry or pickle them. But enough about end-of-season, we are at the beginning now!

When choosing your plants think about what you'll do with them. Any can be used on sauces, but paste or romas have less watery interiors and are more meaty and have good body for cooking down. Romas are also my favorite in salsas for the same reason, less watery salsa but deep tomato flavor. We plant the cherry tomatoes for snacking, but also because they ripen quicker - so we get that great first bite of frech 'mater sooner in the year - the big tomatoes take some time to develop as a plant, then to fruit, then to ripen. The info markers on most plants will tell you if they are slicers, paste, or other known preferred use. If you are buying from a farmer or someone selling seedlings they've grown, most can tell you the character and use of the tomato they are selling. More on those folks below.

Many will also say "bush" or "patio" plants. These are good for growing in pots on decks, patios and other spaces where planting in beds or the ground isn't an option.

WHERE TO FIND THEM

Garden centers all over have vegetable plants in stock now. Those are just fine and these days have huge varieties. Other options include ordering seeds to grow your own or finding farmers markets, farmers, hardware stores or other more local options. We've gotten many unique varieties at the Yorkmont Farmers Market - they have an open-air building where plants are sold, and this time of year that includes all kinds of vegetables and garden plants. We also like to visit Renfroe Hardware. They've been around for over a century in downtown Matthews, NC, and have a huge selection of seedlings and seeds. This is old-school hardware and mercantile.

We like the interesting variety we find in and out of the nurseries and garden centers. We try a couple new plants each year, but always plant our favorites. The nice part about tomatoes in general, they are easy to grow, have few problems and pests, and thrive in our climate. We even plant some each year in our landscaping, the edible landscaping part of the yard here.

I can't wait for the first one every year...and I'm watching the ones we have in the ground now daily waiting for that first bite!

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